Habitats of the World: A Field Guide for Birders, Naturalists, and Ecologists. Iain Campbell, Ken Behrens, Charley Hesse, and Phil Chaon. 2021, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA. ISBN-13 978-0691197562. Flexibound, 568 pp., 15 x 21.5 x 3.5 cm, 1.3 kg (2 lbs 13 oz), $35.
As any field guide aficionado will recognize, field guides focused on habitats are uncommon. But this rarity does prompt the questions: Just who needs a field guide to habitats? and how are we defining “habitat”? Fortunately, the introductory material of this book does a nice job of explaining that (a) the intended audience is anyone traveling with the express interest of viewing birds and other charismatic wildlife, and (b) habitat is viewed as something as either visually distinctive and/or containing group-able assemblages of bird and mammal species. Purists and academics might be inspired to recall the “plea for standard terminology” regarding this term by Hall et al. (1997), but then may also consider that this book is not written for purists and academics. We get it; “habitat” is a pleasingly intuitive concept that is also frustratingly difficult to define. Other people that could enjoy such a book are armchair travelers (such as myself these days), and anyone with a casual interest in considering terrestrial biogeography and biodiversity at a global or continental scale. Researchers hiring field techs or volunteers new to the landscapes they work in might use this book to help get folks oriented at some level.
The book is organized by major biogeographic region (e.g., Palearctic, Neotropical, etc.), and again, the introductory material does a nice job of explaining the distributions of these regions and why they are what they are. The rest of the introduction gives reasonable explanations of how the authors approached the many decisions regarding the structure of the book, walks us through the many basic but required terms used throughout, and explains how to interpret the habitat accounts that follow. There’s a lot of useful information here, and as such serves as a useful crash course in biogeography.
The bulk of the book consists of habitat accounts. Most accounts begin with (a) a map showing the distribution of the habitat, (b) a black-and-white illustration of the vegetative structure, and (c) a plot of precipitation and temperature over the course of a year. The maps are generally good; dark shading indicates where the habitat is the predominant one, and pale shading indicates a more patchy or less distinct distribution. As with all range maps, they show where one is likely to find the habitat, and not where all points are guaranteed to be that habitat. A few of the maps are a bit challenging, in that it’s hard to find the habitat on them. In some cases (e.g., Indo-Malayan Montane Grassland on p. 223) this is because a pale color for the habitat is used, and the base map already has some faint shading and color. In some cases, small darts are added to the map to point out very small areas with that habitat, but the darts themselves are tiny, and at times could be confused for geographic features. In other cases (e.g., Australian Lowland Heathland, p. 66), a dark color is used for a rare/patchy habitat, which also makes it challenging to pick out among other dark features (e.g., borders, small islands) on the map. A solution would be to increase the size of the maps when needed, but this would likely require some other major changes (see below). Some maps have areas blacked out because the map view includes areas outside of the major biogeographic region being considered. This is distracting, occasionally confusing, and doesn’t seem necessary. The habitat is where it is, why highlight areas where it isn’t?
One of the most effective things in the book is the black-and-white habitat silhouette showing a typical vegetation profile, which includes a camera- and backpack-toting human (I’ll call her Annabelle) for scale. Kudos to whichever authors came up with idea and executed it; it’s effective in depicting these habitats in a way that words simply can’t. Anabelle is even sensibly pictured in a small boat where appropriate, such as in Igapó and Várzea Flooded Forest (p. 171) and Neotropical Mangrove (p. 174). The precipitation and temperature figures are very useful and are color-coded to show an estimation of the combined effect of precipitation and temperature and whether the vegetation is experiencing a dearth (orange) or excess (purple) of water. Even without getting used to the color scheme, it’s obviously useful for a traveler to know if the place they will be visiting is expected to be shockingly wet or dry.
The book is filled with lovely images of birds, habitats, and other wildlife, most of which are credited to folks with a leading bird tourism company. This does not surprise, as it is hard to imagine who else, exactly, would be qualified to put together a book on global habitat distributions as seen through a bird watching lens. The authors are writing with their nature tour clients in mind, and the writing certainly feels as if it’s coming from folks with first-hand experience. Overall, the accounts of habitats that I am most familiar with are effective at painting broad but accurate pictures. (My young son and I spent a fair amount of time exploring this book; I am pleased to report his assessment of the treatment of Nearctic Temperate Deciduous Forest as “spot-on.”) There are also a number of sidebars scattered throughout that delve (most often) into regionally important things that influence habitats (e.g., Why Are There Clouds in The Cloud Forest? and Why There Are No Volcanoes in The Himalayas?); these are all useful bits of knowledge to the interested traveler. One especially interesting one on What Makes a Habitat? (p. 151) would be better placed in the introductory material, as it is more generalized than the Chaco Seco and Espinal account where it is currently placed.
Criticisms and suggestions for improvements fall into two categories: Major Reconstruction, and Very Minor. With respect to the former, it seems silly to criticize the amount of material packed into this book. There’s a lot of information here, and it all strikes me as useful. From a practical standpoint, however, I can’t help but think that the size (1.3 kg) and scope (global) of this book render it unlikely to be carried by many in a backpack in the field, where it competes for space with cameras, lunch, and of course, bird field guides. This is the kind of reading most will do while back at camp or in a hotel, either in anticipation of visiting a habitat, or reflecting on where they’ve been. If this is correct, then one suggestion would be to break the book into a three- or four-volume boxed set. This would allow folks to carry only the most geographically important information for where they are. Another advantage this could provide is the ability to enlarge some of the maps, possibly give a few more details in the accounts, and to perhaps make the text a bit bigger: people who struggle with small text may well struggle with this book.
In what I consider more minor criticisms, I must raise the issue of how scientific names are treated. “Treated” meaning there are none in the text. There is an index of common plant names that includes scientific names, but for bird names (remember this book is aimed heavily at birders) we are referred to eBird-Clements, and for all other things we are referred to Wikipedia. The authors obviously know who their main target audience is, and I’ve already pointed out how heavy the book is without adding pages to include scientific names, so it is what it is, I suppose. But the digital version of the book is not so constrained, so I would suggest incorporating scientific names into the digital version of the text. Folks visiting non-English-speaking regions might well wish to have scientific names at the ready when communicating with local guides and scientists.
There are a few places throughout where the targeting of birders as a main audience is a bit distracting. For example, referring to “sought-after” species, or suggesting that some habitat was “particularly productive” is speaking directly to folks wishing to grow their life or trip lists, but it arguably has little to do with the animals or habitats in and of themselves. There are occasional contradictory statements to be found, such as describing a widespread habitat where “bird assemblages remain fairly constant” (p. 124) but also stating that “you can spend many days in it and always concentrate on a new environment with a different suite of species” (p. 125). Overall, this is a fun book, and it contains a wealth of information about habitats, wildlife, and biogeography. It’s certainly required reading for anyone embarking on a nature tour, and it also provides interesting perspective on the habitats on your home turf. Whether it’s something worth toting with you on your far-flung adventures is less certain, but it would be an easy decision with the e-book version.
Dept. of Biology, and Center of Excellence for Field Biology
Peay State University
Clarksville, TN, USA
Hall, L. S., P. R. Krausman, and M. L. Morrison. 1997. The habitat concept and a plea for standard terminology. Wildlife Society Bulletin 25:173-182. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3783301
Header photo courtesy of Princeton University Press
Woltmann, S. 2022. Review of the book Habitats of the World: A Field Guide for Birders, Naturalists, and Ecologists, by Iain Campbell, Ken Behrens, Charley Hesse, and Phil Chaon. Association of Field Ornithologists Book Review, https://www.afonet.org/2022/03/habitats-of-the-world-a-field-guide/.